JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser, senior correspondent Brian Sexton and team reporter Kainani Stevens offer quick thoughts on the Jaguars as they prepare to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, Sunday at 4:05 p.m.
John Oehser, Jaguars Senior Writer…
- Time to grow up again. The Jaguars remain in first place and can win the AFC South by winning their final three games. That means Head Coach Doug Pederson and players are correct that this isn't a time to panic – and Pederson's taking the correct approach this week by emphasizing to players the season is not lost just because they have lost three consecutive games to erase their margin for error in terms of their postseason chances. But the Jaguars lately have shown disturbing trends, particularly the continued self-inflicted mistakes that have contributed to losing winnable important games against contending teams. The thought here when the Jaguars won seven of eight games to move to 8-3 was that they had grown into a mature team with a knack for key plays in key moments. That trait has disappeared the last three games. The Jaguars need to grow up again and show that maturity. If they can, they have a chance to win the second consecutive AFC South title that remains very much in their grasp.
- Back to their identity. Make no mistake: The Jaguars entering Sunday's game are in a difficult spot – and not just because they're tied with the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts for first place in the AFC South with only tiebreakers keeping them in first place. With quarterback Trevor Lawrence's status uncertain because he's in the concussion protocol – and with wide receiver Christian Kirk on injured reserve and wide receiver Zay Jones week-to-week with a hamstring injury – the offense suddenly faces bigger challenges than at any time this season and perhaps bigger than at any time in two seasons under Pederson. The Jaguars through much of this season have been at their best when stopping the run defensively and forcing turnovers. Such quality defense was their identity much of the season, and that identity three weeks ago had them within reach of the AFC's No. 1 seed. The Jaguars still have the personnel and ability to play that identity. Doing so may be their best chance to will themselves to the postseason.
Brian Sexton, Jaguars Senior Correspondent …
- The NFL is almost always about "who" before "how." It's almost always about players before plays in the NFL. Great teams with great coaches not coincidentally have great players. The Jaguars are in a tough spot this week with Lawrence – who was already dealing with knee and ankle injuries – now in the concussion protocol, Kirk on injured reserve and Jones now battling a hamstring issue to go along with a knee injury sustained Week 2. This week can't be about "who" because "who" at wide receiver will be Parker Washington, Elijah Cooks or Tim Jones – and none of them will scare the Buccaneers. It's about "how" Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor plan to move the ball to let backup quarterback C.J. Beathard and the aforementioned receivers move the offense. Pederson and Taylor have been here before; they won a Super Bowl with Philadelphia following the 2017 season with a backup quarterback. They will come up with the right plan – the how. Then, Beathard and the receivers simply must do their jobs.
- Here comes Walker. Jaguars outside linebacker Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, may never escape the comparison to Detroit Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson – who was selected No. 2 overall. To his credit, he never cared or tried to compare himself to Hutchinson. Hutchinson is the more polished pass rusher and Walker is the more dominant player. Walker is a big reason the Jaguars defense has played well most of the season. Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin called him a wrecking ball and every offensive coordinator the Jaguars have faced has had to account for him. He showed why the Jaguars brass wanted him when he chased Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson down from the backside for only a short gain and when he sacked him in the same game. Walker now has six sacks this season, a half sack behind Hutchinson. Walker is coming on. The Jaguars certainly need him considering the offense's injuries.
Kainani Stevens, Jaguars Team Reporter/Producer ...
- The show must go on. For the third time this season, the Jaguars are preparing to play a game without their star quarterback. However, unlike the past two instances, it won't come down to Lawrence deciding to gut through an injury. Lawrence remains in the concussion protocol and that timetable means he likely will miss Sunday's game. Beathard will hope to get his first win as a starter since 2020 and the stakes couldn't be higher with the division lead possibly at stake.
- Learning to win. Pederson often refers to how his team last season needed to "learn how to win." This season, the Jaguars must learn how to prepare like winners. Outside linebacker Josh Allen this week touted the necessity for accountability among all the players after repeated self-inflicted mistakes. Allen referenced the importance of calling each other out "in the moment" and not waiting to watch mistakes on film Monday morning. Here's hoping those in-game corrections come quickly on Christmas Eve in Tampa.